If you’re one of the viewers from the 95 countries that anticipatingly watched as The Discovery Channel’s Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live special, you likely saw 3 of them. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of Egyptian history, ancient history, or even curses and horror movies, it’s very unlikely that this will be your first time coming into contact with today’s word; conversely, the term has actually become a part of our popular culture. Still, read on, and, much like viewers of the aforementioned TV show, who were treated to a 2,500-year-old mummy, a mysterious wax head, and numerous artefacts, you might find a little more than you expected about the word mummy.
While the popular understanding of the term relates to pharaohs wrapped in bandages, the actual origin relates to a specific detail of the process. Coming into English from the Medieval Latin mumia, which is derived from the Arabic mumiyah, meaning ‘embalmed body’, the word originated as the Persian mumiya, meaning ‘asphalt/bitumen’, whose root, mum, means ‘wax’. As for how the term for wax and asphalt becomes synonymous with an embalmed body, it’s all in the process: when it comes to the incisions made for the removal of the organs as well as holding the 20 layers of linen strips (for wrapping the body) in place, a type of wax sealant was used- mum/mumiya = mummy.
For this obvious explanation, the first use of the term in English is, well, rather morbid. A translation of Lanfranc of Milan, writing circa 1400, in his Science of Cirurgie (Surgery), discusses: “[Taking] oil of..turpentine..mummy [v.r. Mumie].” Yes, you read that correctly: initially, there was a belief that the bituminous liquid extracted from ancient Egyptian mummies (and later, the flesh itself) had medicinal properties, due to their resemblance to pissasphalt.
In 1601, 2 centuries later, we can see this usage/understanding in a more illustrative sense, as Sir William Cornwallis mentions in Discourses upon Seneca the Tragedian how: “I verily believe the hanging of one man, to work better effects amongst men, then twentie made into mummy.”
Thankfully, it would only be 14 more years until we see the first usage of our word as it relates to the overall process of mummification in ancient Egypt. Travelling to the Middle East, George Sandys writes in his work, A Relation of a Journey, regarding: “The Mummies (lying in a place where many generations have had their sepultures) not far above Memphis.”
Over the course of the next half century, we begin to see the use of the term to describe all of the aspect that we have come to associate with a mummy, which, rather ironically, can also relate back to the initial usage of the term as it entered the English language. Around 1616, in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 3, Scene 5), with a meaning of the dead flesh of a carcass, the character Sir John Falstaff states: “The water swells a man; and what a thing should I have been, when I had beene swelled? I should have been a Mountain of mummy.” The 1642 book by English churchman and historian, Thomas Fuller, The Holy State and The Profane State, uses the term to figuratively denote a preserved essence, writing that: “Many men are murdered merely for their wealth, that other men may make mummy of the fat of their estates.” Finally, looking at a letter from Israel Tonge to Robert Boyle form 17 March 1666, recorded in The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, or word becomes associated with dried of desiccated flesh, with Tonge expressing that: “Either dried pork hath somewhat repugnant to other meats, or it will eagerly reimbibe its own or the like gravy, if returned to the Tub..; after 16 years it may be eaten, though not commended, & keeps yet after 20 years in mummy.”
Interestingly, a little more than a half century after this, our word seems to have – at least in a horticultural sense – come full circle, with naturalist Richard Bradley’s work, A Philosophical Account of the Works of Nature, which mentions: “I have taken notice of a new invented Method of transplanting Trees with Safety, by means of a Vegetable Mummy.”, with mummy meaning a type of protective grafting wax made of pitch and turpentine.
By the late 1720’s though, there began to be an understanding that mummies didn’t just have to be from Egypt, as in his Cyclopædia published in 1728, Ephraim Chambers suggests that any naturally preserved human or animal body can be considered a mummy, noting: “There are two kinds of Bodies call’d by the Term Mummy. The first are only Carcasses, dried by the Heat of the Sun.”
Finally, we couldn’t fully discuss this term without at least mentioning one of the driving forces behind our fascination with mummies: the first mention of a mummy being brought back to life for rather sinister purposes occurred in the 10 January 1933 issue of the entertainment publication Variety, chillingly recalling how: “Revival of the mummy comes comparatively early in the running time. The transformation of Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep from a clay-like figure in a coffin to a living thing is the highlight.”
Hopefully, these 3 newly discovered mummies, found in a remote burial site known as Al-Ghorifa in Middle Egypt, will seek a more traditional route for notoriety, without going into medicine or showbusiness.